China's Permanent Conflict Strategy Is A Stroke of Genius

China's Permanent Conflict Strategy Is A Stroke of Genius

Permanent conflict in alternating areas, not war, best suits Beijing’s interests.

Tokyo lodged a series of protests over the weekend regarding renewed Chinese activity in the disputed East China Sea. Japan has claimed that China recently installed a radar on a Chinese offshore gas platform.

Japan’s protests occurred after incursions by as many as 230 Chinese fishing vessels and six coast guard ships in contiguous zones surrounding the Senkakus on Saturday, and intrusions by two Chinese coast guard vessels into the territorial waters around the islets on Sunday. On Friday, eight Chinese fishing and coast guard vessels also reportedly entered territorial waters around the Senkakus. Tokyo, which administers and claims ownership over three of the Senkaku islets—Uotsuri, Kitakojima and Minamikojima—has been locked in a longstanding dispute with Beijing over the area, which is also claimed by Taiwan.

Japan’s foreign ministry has also revealed that China had installed an ocean radar system and surveillance cameras on one of the sixteen gas-drilling platforms it currently operates in international waters in the East China Sea. Tokyo has accused Beijing of breaking a bilateral cooperation agreement on co-exploration of gas reserves in the East China Sea by unilaterally developing the area. The foreign ministry said the radar, which Japan claims is similar the type normally found on patrol vessels, was discovered in June and called for the immediate removal of the equipment.

Beijing has refused to comment on the matter.

If confirmed, the radar facility could have military applications and echo similar moves by China in the South China Sea, where civilian-purpose installations have gradually been militarized.

Multiple-front logic

While it may be tempting to question the wisdom of Beijing’s constantly agitating on two separate fronts—four, if we include the Taiwan Strait and China’s border with India—there is nothing irrational about its behavior. It is in fact calculated, calibrated and manageable, and so far it has been highly successful.

Although its recent actions in the South and East China Seas have alarmed the region and encouraged the creation of a countervailing regional security alliance hinging around the United States, China has nevertheless calibrated its activities so as to avoid the kind of destabilization that would cause military clashes with its neighbors or force a U.S. military intervention beyond freedom of navigation patrols. Yes, China’s militarization of the South China Sea and its intransigence in the territorial dispute no doubt contributed to last month’s ruling against it by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague, ostensibly giving the Philippines a temporary victory, but even there the reputational blow isn’t fatal, nor will it alter Beijing’s position on this issue.

In fact, the regional and international reactions to its territorial ambitions conceivably feed into, and perhaps are even part of, Beijing’s two-pronged approach, one domestic and the other external, to expansionism.

The first is the reinforcing of the narrative which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been cultivating domestically—foreign containment and China’s victimhood. Here, the advantages of the two-front strategy become apparent. In order to maintain the nationalistic-expansionist narrative that buttresses support for the CCP in China, Beijing must be in a constant state of managed conflict. This means that the conflict cannot escalate into armed conflict, which isn’t in China’s interest, but at the same time it cannot de-escalate the situation because doing so—as I argued previously—would constitute a loss of face with the Chinese public.

The Chinese leadership is well aware that waging war on two fronts can be disastrous for even the most battle-hardened militaries. But war isn’t what it has in mind, and it will likely go to great lengths to avoid such an outcome: permanent conflict, is instead the current strategy.

With two (or four) different fronts that can be activated almost at will, Beijing has therefore ensured it can satisfy the demands of an increasingly nationalistic public by proving that it is standing up for China’s interests and not backing down despite all the external forces that are conspiring against it.

Beijing has alternated its escalatory measures between the East and the South China Sea. When it looks like its actions might prompt a muscular response from its adversaries, it pulls back temporarily but renews its activities in the other theater of operations. This oscillation, which has been going on for the past few years, could explain why last week’s naval incursions near the Senkakus were described by Tokyo as larger than usual, and why Japanese are now saying that Sino-Japanese relations are rapidly deteriorating . The PCA ruling did not, as some analysts had expected, compel Beijing to abandon its territorial ambitions and become a responsible stakeholder; instead, it only indicated that the time had come for Beijing to shift its escalatory activities back to the East China Sea, where the action will conceivably be for the next little while. The PCA squeezed the water balloon in the South China Sea, and it filled up elsewhere. Rarely, if ever, has China upped the ante on two fronts simultaneously.